In an attempt to improve its image, the National Education Association (NEA)--of which the MEA is an affiliate--recently authorized a consultant, the Kamber Group, to review the NEA’s condition and suggest possible improvements. The report outlines steps to soften the image of the NEA and in effect, re-create public sentiment concerning the teachers’ union. The Kamber Group’s analysis involved a three-month interviewing process of 42 NEA leaders, staff, and state affiliates, as well as in-depth research of NEA related news clips, advertising, and other printed materials. The overall tone of the report is one of fear; that the NEA must take whatever measures necessary in order to protect its organization and the faltering system of public education its livelihood depends on. The report systematically analyzes the problems facing the powerful teachers’ union, which the NEA fears will soon mean the end of public education and the end of the association along with it. While the report stresses the need to create a mask--a kinder, gentler image for the NEA--it does not recommend that the NEA change its underlying principles, most notably its staunch opposition to fundamental school reform.
Not surprisingly, the report concludes that many Americans perceive the NEA to be a militant and self-interested labor union. In order to combat this sentiment so as to save public education and the NEA, the Kamber analysis suggests that what is needed is a union face lift. A softer, kinder, and more positive union image must replace the old. While describing steps to be taken to manipulate the press to re-direct public opinion, the report contains little evidence suggesting that the NEA has changed its positions on any significant educational issues such as educational choice or compulsory unionism. In fact, according to the report, the NEA plans to continue on "in the same direction" (p.iii) while it attempts to "sell the public" (p.13) on its new and kinder facade. While suggesting no real solutions to the problems the NEA faces, the report stresses the need one interviewee expressed to at least, "make it look like it’s servicing the kids rather than members" (p.13). Indeed, the Kamber Group’s analysis finds that a "sizable number" (p.4) of the NEA’s membership who were interviewed, "do not believe [the NEA] is a player in terms of ensuring the quality of education" (p.4), and felt that "the NEA cares more about . . . protecting bad teachers than kids" (p.19). The bottom line is that while the surface of the union may have changed, its underlying principles haven’t budged. The NEA remains the largest obstacle to genuine educational reform and improvement in the country.
The Kamber Group report declares with unprecedented urgency that the system of traditional public education must be saved at any cost. At first glance such insistence may lead one to believe that the NEA strives to do this so that America’s children might obtain the best education possible. However, the true meaning and motive behind its drive is something else. In order to keep the union alive the NEA must perpetuate the existence of status quo traditional public education--an overly bureaucratic system devoid of parental choice and competition, that is dominated by compulsory unionism and hostile to innovations such as privatization that can channel more resources to the classroom. It soon becomes quite obvious that the NEA’s fervent effort to save status quo public education is a priority not because it is in the best interests of children, but rather because it is in the best interest of the NEA. It is willing, therefore, to protect this system at any cost, no matter how incapable of educating our nation’s youth it may be. It will not, indeed it cannot, take any measure that might threaten the existence of status quo public schools. This includes school choice, labor law reform, and an array of other potentially beneficial measures that might serve to eventually replace traditional public educational systems. The report clearly recognizes this dilemma as it asserts that allowing such educational freedoms would in fact "undermine" (p.12) public schools.
The NEA understands that if it wishes to exist it cannot change its underlying opposition to genuine school reform. The situation is analogous to asking a shoe cobbler to introduce new machinery to his boss that will make his services comparatively costly and obsolete. For this reason, the NEA refuses to acknowledge the declining state of public education in our country, and is willing to perpetuate the status quo no matter what the price may be. The Kamber Group report states that it has "not seen any significant . . . record" (p.16) of "problems in education" (p.16). The Kamber Group’s analysis even goes so far as to assert that in the absence of a rigid, traditional system of public education, the United States will be incapable of leading the world into the next century. As the Kamber Group sees it, without a system of traditional public education our nation’s children are doomed.
While the Kamber Group’s analysis acknowledges the fact that the public holds an unfavorable view of the NEA, it fails to acknowledge the union’s resistance to true educational reform, the union’s self-serving attitudes, and statist ideologies the union promotes. This is the true reason the public harbors ill feelings for the NEA, but the Kamber Group report failed to grasp this crucial point. For this reason, the NEA’s plan to simply re-create its image is problematic. The public is not as ignorant as the NEA believes; it will see through the glossy new finish, to the same old outmoded interior in dire need of repair.
The Kamber Group’s suggestion for an NEA face lift to regain public sympathy has not gone unnoticed. Indeed, the MEA, perhaps the NEA’s most powerful state affiliate, has recently launched a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to refurbish its image. It is unfortunate that the MEA does not demonstrate the same zeal for improving education that it does for improving its image; the MEA’s efforts and resources could be much better used for genuine improvement than for an expensive disguise designed to fool the public. As Bertrand Russell once observed, "change is one thing, progress is another." While the MEA’s face-lift may constitute change, only a reconsideration of their underlying opposition to genuine school reform would constitute progress.